Metaphysical Landscapes and Social Lamentations: Ivan Metodiev’s Poetics
© Svetlozar Igov, author
© Petko T. Hinov, English translation
He did not enter Bulgarian literature by the usual and beaten path of the candidates for literary glory of that time — the middle-school and university circles-of-interest, editions, higher philological education or a Moscow institute of literature, an editor’s or a clerk’s sinecure in a cultural institution, by attaching himself to a «synodal» leader or through a set of persistent combinations inside the power labyrinths of the literary hierarchies.
He did not depart from literature «toward life,» but came into literature «from life,» if I may be allowed to use the literature cliché of that time.
The son of humble teachers, who bequeathed him only the legacy of honest labour, Ivan Metodiev was a child of the capital city; he grew up in its concrete thickets, hearkening to the mysterious voices of his solitary vocation. After he graduated from the chemistry department of Sofia University, almost for a decade he worked in the domain of his speciality in the Soil Science Institute. Metodiev made his debut with the poetic volume Simple Sense (1980), later than his coevals; his next poetic book — Landscapes of the Soul (1983) — was a sign for the connoisseurs that a new great poet, a creator of completely original poetics, has made his appearance in Bulgarian literature. With the books that followed — Cosmogonies (1987), Ford (1989) and Structures (1989) — Ivan Metodiev confirmed this impression, enlarging his lyrical world with new poems.
In the 1980s, the criminal ruling crust of Zhivkov’s regime had already thrown away the banner of social resentment ideology, that it had demagogically flourished for quite some time, only to replace it with a banner it had abandoned at its ascension into power — that of national resentment — in the belief that it was remedying its own proletarian & internationalist delusion with an ideology of national socialism. This, however, did not signify a recompense for the error, but adding a new crime to the old one. Ivan Metodiev’s poetry of the 1980s is absolutely alien to both the old and «new» ideological frameset, into which the flunkeys of the regime were trying to force Bulgarian literature.
This determined the poet’s destiny in the following decade, too, when — after the «negotiated» revolution (in the words of the Polish publicist Ryszard Kapuściński) — the old mafia and the secret services took to constructing the Potemkin-style village of Bulgarian democracy, in which there was no place for genuine poets.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Ivan Metodiev tried, with his magazine Nava, to create a poetic movement of the short forms, but his attempt was doomed in advance, because literary periodicals were systematically being destroyed under the pretext of «market economy,» in order that only the periodicals of the former regime’s pets would survive.
Ivan Metodiev was not an unpractical intellectual, on the contrary, he had both a solid practical profession and a keen flair for business, but he remained faithful to his creative vocation, taking pains in keeping an art gallery. The latter failed not because the Mugs quit on art, but because — after they plundered our national wealth — the leaders of Zhivkov’s mafia took to clearing the way for their minions and their circles of buddies.
During this period Ivan Metodiev’s pen fathered another five poetic books, from Mother of the Universe (1990) to Time and Nothing (2001), in which the voice of the suffering and pain of Bulgarian society was transformed into lyrical lamentation: a literary representation of a new turn in the development of Bulgarian literary art, as the latter has always been the «ethical meaning of history» (T. C. Eliot).
Then the inevitable happened: in July 2003, the poet left his home, saying he was going to the Pirin mountain. A week later, his dead body was found near Bansko. Death «in unexplained circumstances»? On the contrary, the circumstances are far too well explained, they are blurred only by those who wish that the obvious be hidden: a thing which the poet stated with extreme clarity in his covenantal poem: «Give me!»—his escape from the «great marketplace.» Because true poetry trades in «securities» that are not in circulation in the marketplace of life, if I should recall the words of an old poet.
Ivan Metodiev did not flee from life in order to die alone like a dog. He was systematically pushed toward death by those, who were clearing the road of the new literature establishment, whose task is—just like that of the «Bulgarian state»—to conceal the truth about modern Bulgaria and its culprits, who are not at all the Mugs, falsely accused of being the criminal world, but the people who were guilty for Bulgaria’s tragedy even before 1989, those for whom ideology, Party and State were only a convenient screen for cloaking their own criminal activity.
The misery and mortification—the destiny of the greater part of Bulgaria’s society—were also destiny of the poet Ivan Metodiev. That is why the screaming-and-weeping of his poetry is not a literary topic, but destiny. And precisely because suffering was not only his own, precisely because it was his destiny also, his poetry acquires a classical significance and stands up next to the poetry of the great ones in the martyrologium of Bulgarian literature—those, whose words were the voice and conscience of their epoch.
And precisely because his voice was the voice of those that remain silent in the subterranean vaults of history, his voice was perilous.
Ivan Metodiev’s death was another—and one of many—political assassination in history of Bulgaria, perpetrated by new means, emblematic for its time. The same means, by which is being carried out the systematic genocide of a population, which is transformed into a people only thanks to voices of poets such as Ivan Metodiev. Absent them, remains only the carcass.
* * *
Ivan Metodiev’s first poetic book represents abandonment of all rhetorical strategies of Bulgarian poetry, contemporaneous or precedent. It is an attempt for returning to all things «as they are,» in their immediate factualness to the senses (the title, Simple Senses, is not fortuitous). If I should use the language of modern philosophy, I would say that the poet performed a phenomenological reduction in his lyrical world.
In this way, the images of things in Metodiev’s lyrical world appear in their material specificity and clearly structured objectiveness: trees, hills, sky, land, river, houses—laid before our eyes; and the world of «Nature,» together with the world of «rooms,» the exterior and the interior of man, in pictorially framed «worlds,» landscapes, which are rather a set of abstract landscape formulae. Nature—animate and inanimate—is structured in a figured and spatial clarity. Still-life imagery, floral and faunal imagery, even insectological (recurrent) imagery are all arranged in a world oftener as ideas of objects rather than objects per se.
This «still-life-ness» and «idea-ness» of the visible world are already present in the poetry of Dalchev, in the Bulgarian tradition; Ivan Metodiev, however, created a lyrical world entirely of his own. Own: not only because the penchant for certain images (e.g. flowers and insects) makes this world individually original, but also because it possesses its own optics, its own cosmological conception.
Even in spots where Metodiev’s poetry apparently preserved the confessional intensity of the «experience,» the images of his lyrical world are rather formulae of objects or even formulae of human fates. The rooms of childhood, the images of the mother and the father, the beloved woman, the «Bulgarian» landscapes, have been transformed into abstract images of themselves alone. Even the local colouring and private nuance have become generalised images. Despite the powerful suggestion of «Bulgarian» and even «rustic» landscapes, they become metaphorical landscapes and lyrical models of «things.» Even the «Bulgarian» misery (let us recollect Lyudmil Stoyanov’s almost forgotten Miserere) has been universalised not by its correspondence to a more generalised pattern («The slums of Europe»), but rather by its inscription into the metaphysical cosmological picture.
Even where Metodiev painted the «movement» of the world, that was rather a formula of movement and a dismantling the mechanisms of mobility of things. Not only on account of this, however, Ivan Metodiev’s paintings are somewhat like still-lives, congealed and torpid. In fact, it is in this «termination of movement» of the images that both the beauty and the horror of this world are concealed, which—in mutual regarding—become intensified existing, so to say, «beyond» their tolerability and expressibility.
One is irresistibly tempted to define Ivan Metodiev’s poetry as «philosophic» and this definition is as precise as it is dangerous, because it could create a wrong notion of this poet. Metodiev’s poetry is philosophical not because it is «erudite,» «Alexandrian,» «commentatorial,» reflecting, but because it is «imperceptibly sentential.» Its images are not the constructs of some prerequisite philosophy, it is rather its images that predispose to be concluded with a philosophical inquiry:
«It is doubtless that God whispers to us through the rain—but what?» asks the poem «Time and Nothing» from the book with the same name; this can demonstrate that the «philosophical» dimension in Metodiev’s poetry is not in expressing thoughts on things, but the very speech of things in their silence, which presses to be expressed. At the same time Ivan Metodiev knew, that things do not speak alone, but are being talked to by poets, that meaning is not in «things» themselves, but comes to be in our dialogue with them—a dialogue in which our words should not obfuscate the meaning of things, but fix on them their eyes and hearken to them:
In nascent thirst, the tree is trembling
and spilling over these grey streets,
transforming itself into bitter breathing
and into something more, but what?
If, in the beginning, Ivan Metodiev’s poetry was more «spatial,» at the end it was becoming more «temporal»; in the beginning the poet seemed to look at things with greater attention; then he was listening to them more intently. And «things»—both objects of inanimate nature and living creatures not endowed with speech—began to talk; or, rather, the poet imparted to their silence his own language.
So, at times he rises to the insights of a genius:
The clock is counting something
but this is not Time.
I am counting the Nothing
and this is Time.
This philosophical formula is not a paraphrase, but—in its perspicacity—a parallel to St. Augustine’s definition of time. It could be included in any Anthology of philosophical thought. But Ivan Metodiev is not a mere philosopher, but a poet-philosopher thinking in images. It is only logical that the above four verses are followed by these:
two thirsty rooks
three-fourths of a windlet.
Seventeen midges by the willow
are playing at rain.
This lyrical landscape is not a figurative illustration of the philosophical sentence in the first four verses, neither a mere landscape decoration, supposed to delegate to the philosophical thought a status of a work of literary art. The philosophical thought here, both springs from and flows into the situation depicted which possesses different literary functions.
The enumeration itself—one (brook), two (thirsty rooks), three (fourths of a windlet) up to seventeen (midges)—as though makes the experience metronomic, admixing thereto the mechanical ticking of a gauge, presenting the quantitative essence of the «empty» (physical, astronomical) time. And the figurative additions to this «enumeration»: the brook (1), the rooks (2), to 17 (which signifies the mathematical n-number) midges not only make this enumeration evolve into a picture (as the pictures in the children’s arithmetic primers), but also create an independent world of meaning—pictorial and imitative, with emotive and additional philosophical-semantical functions. The very landscape possesses both «natural» and «metaphysical» denotative functions. It is not «the picture,» however, which makes a poem out of a philosophical aphorism, likewise an aphorism does not make a poem philosophical; rather, their multi-connotative union of meanings, which is the same as the union of spatiality and temporality. Here, visual spatiality—in objects either scattered or well-arranged (the brook, the rooks, the midges and the willow)—by virtue of the metronomic counting, falls into the order of acoustic space, becomes structured temporally; and only thereby—in the emptiness of «nothing,»—appears the meaning of «time.»
But, while succumbing to the dangerous temptation of defining Metodiev’s poetry as «philosophical,» it is necessary that I make an important specification: the poet Ivan Metodiev was not simply a philosophically thinking poet, but also a philosophically learned and well-read intellectual. His philosophical penchant, however, was cultivated in the bosom of his scientific training as a chemist, i.e. a man of the exact and natural sciences, and not of philosophy as one of the liberal arts; I do not mean to say he did not have his share of interest to the latter, too, but Metodiev was rather into natural and not cultural philosophy; he was a «philosopher of things» rather than «philosopher of words.» By writing this, I do not wish to contrast some «two philosophies« (esp. in the area of values). I only put on record a poet’s philosophical vision of the world—a poet who wished to remove the veil of words between men and things, to penetrate with his eyes into the very things, to hark to their silence, to hear how their silence and Silence converse. We could see and hear «things themselves,« too, by analysing the words which stand between us and things, in order to realise the way and degree of deformation, caused by this mediator between man and «things,» or by peering into the very «things,» divested of all words. It is not fortuitous, therefore, that the poetic movement and philosophy of NAVA, which Ivan Metodiev endeavoured to create (printing out a few issues of the «NAVA» magazine, as well), were directed toward brevity of expression precisely by his wish to eliminate words as a superfluous intermediary: «The greater the energy that is begotten between words, the less words needed. The less words needed, the greater the freedom of the expressive forms… Many words bring little freedom.» Ivan Metodiev’s poetry was born on the verge between philosophy and poetry of which Wittgenstein used to say: «Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.»
Meta-reality, which poetry is for Ivan Metodiev, is «a ford through silence.»
And «things» — they are, above all, things not man-created, but of the natural world, of Nature. The penchant of a natural philosopher is the artistic foundation of Ivan Metodiev as a poet.
As for «Nature» itself, it is seen by the poet with a keenly delineated structure. God appears in his lyrical vision as the Creator of an orderly world, of a Cosmos, whose Logos of cosmic order He is. And only at a later stage (not chronologically, but logically), when the cosmogonic vision was supplemented by an anthropological one as well, did God become also an Object of questions such as He was asked by the Biblical Job.
The natural philosophy vision itself is not just seeing Nature as Cosmos, as a hierarchically structured world, but also a «scientific» outlook on Nature: not as a mere geographical and physical structure, but also as a chemical (and even bacteriological) «culture.» And it is precisely in this «chemically» dynamic, and not physically static, vision of Nature that the world of decay and birth create the notion of transfusion between Cosmogony and Apocalypse, between the world of birth and the world of death, between «the beginning» and «the end.»
* * *
Ivan Metodiev’s poetics has a rather peculiar feature—it not only loves «small things,» it also loves their diminutive names: midges and tiny pools, hamlets and doggies, a tiny wind and a granule, little voices and bladelets of grass, little mothers, little sisters, little children.
At the beginnings of this poetry, the diminutives are not so frequent, but small things are generally present amidst the «small things», but with time, their diminutives tend to become more frequent.
In Bulgarian literature, Ivan Metodiev has an important predecessor in diminutive poetics — Valery Petrov. From his early «Palechko» (Thumbelin), to the lyrical depictions of the «aged little boy» however, diminutive images and names in Valery Petrov’s poetry have either a «fairy-tale» or «oddifying» functions of an infantile outlook on the world, which the poet makes a miniature of, in order to make the world a less aggravating, a cosier place, and to mollify its rudeness by euphemising it.
Ivan Metodiev’s usage of the diminutive has the additional meaning of familiarising, but its main semantic functions are different, and even averse to the euphemisation of the world: with them, Metodiev’s lyrical world not only does not grow in fairy-tale beauty, but on the contrary, becomes more terrifying. The world reduced to a miniature is juxtaposed to the gigantic spaces of the macrocosmos, the distances between macrocosmos and microcosmos thicken and become more intimate, while at the same time becoming distant and starting to run apart; seen from an intimate distance, small things become gigantic while cosmic things shrink. Metodiev’s diminutive imagery and usage of the Vocative narrate the horrendous tales of poverty-stricken orphaned childhoods and afflictions of old age, of life’s penury and social suffering. But the «bottom of life» can be seen in Metodiev’s verse not on a mere social and sentimental level, but rather in his existential archetypes; social significance is subordinate to existential and ontological significance.
Ivan Metodiev’s diminutive poetics is also related to a typical insectological imagery of a Kafkaian key and compound optics. While Kafka, however, presented man’s transformation into an insect, and Vaptsarov compared human destiny to an insect’s ephemerality, Ivan Metodiev did not inscribe insects into his metaphysical landscapes, in order to compare them to man and human destiny, but only to incorporate them into his general cosmological lyrical vision, in which not only are macrocosmos and microcosmos reflected, but one see transitions between microscopic and telescopic optics, as well.
Above, I have pointed out several times—in an apparent contradiction with underscoring Metodiev’s solitude and poetics—the similarities of his poetry with trends embodied by other poets as well—from Atanas Dalchev and Valery Petrov, to Ivan Tsanev and Boris Hristov. Bulgarian critics of the past have most often pointed out these similarities, if not to cast the doubt of plagiarism, then at least to belittle the originality of this poet. If I am pointing out these similarities now, it is not only because through a similarity we could discover difference, but also because I fully uphold T. C. Eliot’s idea that an individual talent acquires its significance only if circumscribed in an existing «tradition».
Ivan Metodiev’s poetry, however, is circumscribed in the sublime tradition of Bulgarian poetry not only through some of the parallels I mentioned (they can be multiplied if we were to analyse more aspects of his poetics), but also by its being a part of a deeper historical tradition, conceived by the lamentations in Old Bulgarian poetry, transfuses into Botev’s elegy (from «Tell me, tell me, ye luckless people…» to be infused into modern lyricists’ lamentations.
Having begun with capturing and creating pictures, visions, sights that transform into metaphysical landscapes, «landscapes of the soul,» Ivan Metodiev’s poetry ended in a voice, which was transformed into a supplication and a wail, in a song, which became weeping:
Give me strength, O Lord…
Open up, you Earth! Open up, you Earth!
This prayerful voice, this weeping song are not an individual lamentation, but a universal voice, the voice of a community’s destiny, enriched with the intonations of the Biblical Job or Yovkov’s Vulkadin. From Dimitrie Cantacuzin’s prayer to Theotokos to the collapse of female funeral lamentations with Hölderlin’s question: «Whoever needeth poets?» in Elizaveta Bagryana’s S.O.S., these Bulgarian and Balkan lyrical lamentations, this weeping from the «slums of Europe» belong to a long-standing tradition.
Ivan Metodiev’s poetics recreated the metaphysical landscapes of a devastated land, whose wailing wants to restore to its people the destroyed meaningfulness, elating the devastated and emptied lives to a tragic destiny.
* * *
A creation attains its completeness through interpretation, that is why after the poet is gone from our midst, a battle begins for sovereignty over the meaning of his poetry. The simplest and most efficient way to do this is to conceal his works in oblivion, to cut off all his access to the readers, who are growing less and less anyway. But as all works of art are preserved mostly by virtue of small readerships, the other strategy for rendering poets innocuous, is not only to keep them in half-oblivion, but also to marginalise them; to that end, various strategies of interpretation are used, among which there are efficacious techniques of expulsion. For example, to bind a poetry down to a marginal, peripheral or provincial audience, so as to exclude it from the high critical debate.
Among the interpretation strategies for the eventual dismantling of Ivan Metodiev’s poetry there could be several ways: for example, by amputating the social significance of his poetry (as a weeping outcry of social suffering), by interpreting it as mere philosophical lyrics. Or, to construe his poems as the works of an eccentric recluse and a mere confessor of his private depressions. And if, nonetheless, the social meaning of his lamentations is impossible to conceal, then it could be shoved into some nook of the political barricades—that is, to attach to it some political, but unilaterally oriented meaning, such as serving someone’s ad hoc interests, a fact that would marginalise any poetry by turning it into a political instrument. Another very efficient method of control over meaning, keeping a poetics within the realm of high literary sense at that, is to fix the attention onto a feature of that poetics (brevity, for example), while emptying the structure from its meaning.
And it seems as though Ivan Metodiev had foreseen the possibility of such hermeneutic machinations:
whereas Satan explains.
This hermeneutic scepticism is also an expression of an eternal battle between the principle of creation and the principle of reflection, between the primariness of figurative supra-construction and the secondariness of commentary, between the silence of things and the whispers of words, between the nakedness of Nature and the veil of words betwixt man and Nature.
That is why Ivan Metodiev’s poetry is so much intent on creating a «pure» nature of its own, and world, retired in itself and silent as a cosmos well-arranged within itself. At the same time, however, in order to expunge the seemingly «alien» commentary and the critique as the «thief of meaning», his poetry as though wishes to exhaust its own commentary, fix its meanings and be auto-reflexive — not, however, in revealing an auto-commentary, but by creating in itself an inseverable embrace of image and thought. And by becoming both a direct voice, a prayer, a weeping and a cry, it appears to exhaust the necessity to be commented and interpreted. Weeping and crying are limits of words, beyond which they again return into the silence of things.
* * *
As early as the late 1990s (it must have been after the publication of «Songs of Orphans and Little Orphans», because I had suggested the Collection of Works to be named «Book the Tenth» I was trying to persuade him to collect all his poetry in one book. Ivan was of the opinion that it would be better to publish a Selection, instead of Collection, and he showed me several times what he had done; I used to reprimand him he was «making haste slowly». The files with his selection were named with my surname (Igov) and were numbered from 1 («Simple Senses») to 9 («Time and Nothing»). On a separate file I find «Grant me!» — obviously chosen by the poet as the introductory poem, though it is the last in time and, in a sense, a testamental one. I deem «Grant Me» explains well the «reasons» for seekers of «the reasons». Because the «end» of the poets is the best explanation of their «beginning.»
The present selection strictly follows the poet’s own «selective choice» and «configuration», but I am positive that his poetry will one day have its own «collection». Because, as all great poets, Ivan Metodiev wrote «everything» as «selected.»
With the posthumously published poetic book «More Silence» Ivan Metodiev had asked for more Silence, so that we could hear his words. And so he entered into the Silence, where only the «words» that say «things» echo.
Ivan Metodiev was one of those few modern poets for whom the words, said centuries ago, are fully valid:
«He speaketh things; and the rest of ye speak words.»
 The Mugs (мутри) is the name Bulgarian common people gave to the corpulent, physically strong individuals with low intelligence, executors of violent tasks in criminal organisations after the so-called “Transition to democracy” in Bulgaria after 1989; the Mugs are hostile and brutal with regard to ordinary people. A Mug is the embodiment of triumphant spiritual degradation and narrow-mindedness, often distinguished by dominant thinking, violent behaviour, commonly ridiculed by the general public. After Bulgaria’s admittance into the EU, the appellation “Mug”, iconic of Bulgaria of the 1990s, was replaced by the far more euphonious “well-dressed businessmen.” — Translator’s note